Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - December 23, 2022

Stille Nacht

The holiday season feels a bit different this year. The usual exuberance and festive aspects seem a bit muted. Perhaps it is the effect of the war in the Ukraine, climate change, the lingering Covid situation, a fresh round of respiratory bugs, and a somewhat uncertain economy.

While I enjoy all types of Christmas music, "Silent Night" seems to resonate more than usual this year. Perhaps that isn't entirely coincidental. Austrian priest Josef Mohr penned the lyrics in 1816 at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. His congregation in the town of Mariapfarr was poor, hungry and traumatized. Twelve years of war had destroyed the country's political and social infrastructure. The eruption of Indonesia's Mount Tambora in 1815 had caused climate change throughout Europe. Crops failed and there was widespread famine.

To help his congregation cope, Mohr wrote a set of six poetic verses to convey hope and say that there was still a God who cared. The first verse is the most familiar.

Silent night, holy night!
All is calm, all is bright.
Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child.
Holy infant so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace.

In 1817, Mohr transferred to the parish of St. Nikolaus in Oberndorf bei Salzburg. He asked Franz Xaver Gruber, a local schoolteacher and organist, to set the words to music. On Christmas Eve, 1818, they sang "Stille Nacht" - "Silent Night" - for the first time in front of the congregation. Mohr sung the tenor part and played the guitar while Gruber sang bass. It was well-received by Mohr's parishioners, many of whom worked as boat-builders and shippers in the salt trade that was central to the economy of the region.

Sarah Eyerly, assistant professor of musicology at Florida State University, said the melody and harmonization of "Silent Night" are based on an Italian musical style called "siciliana" that mimics the sound of water and rolling waves. In this way, she says, "Gruber's music reflected the daily soundscape of Mohr's congregation, who lived and worked along the Salzach River."

The song spread across Europe, popularized by the Austrian Strasser and Rainer folk-singing families. The Strasser siblings - Anna, Josef, Amalie, Caroline and Alexander - are reported to have sung "Silent Night" at Leipzig's Christmas market in 1831. They and the Rainers were among the founders of the Tirolean national singing tradition, and "Silent Night" was among the many tunes they performed.

In 1839, the Rainers began their U.S. tour, which took them to Boston, New York, St. Louis and Philadelphia. Austria's Silent Night Association says the song was sung in America for the first time on Christmas 1839 in front of the Hamilton Monument in New York.

German-speaking missionaries spread the song from Tibet to Alaska, translating it into local languages. By the mid-19th century, "Silent Night" had even made its way to Inuit communities along the Labrador coast, where it was translated into Inuktitut.

London newspapers featured articles about the Christmas Truce of 1914. German and British soldiers on the World War I front lines in Flanders, Belgium laid down their weapons and sang "Silent Night" together.

The song has been translated into at least 300 languages and arranged in many different musical styles, including Elvis Presley's soothing, lullaby-quality version. In 2011, UNESCO designated the song as a treasured item of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

This past fall, husband Art, friends Deb and Lou, and I visited Oberndorf bei Salzburg to see the Stille Nacht chapel. Art and I had traveled there with daughters Mariya and Katie about 10 years before, but this year, we spent more time, including eating a late lunch at the adjacent Stille Nacht Einkehr. "Einkehr" means a place to stop and contemplate and we did just that.

The chapel, consecrated in August 1937, stands on the site of the St. Nikolaus Church. The church was razed in the early 1900s and rebuilt on higher ground because the Salzach's flooding had taken a toll on the original building. The chapel is small and intimate. Hanging above the altar is a framed wooden depiction of the Nativity. Stained-glass windows on either side honor Mohr and Gruber. The words, "Friede den Menschen auf Erden ..." - "Peace to the people on Earth ..." - are inscribed on the wooden door. There are two sculptures outside, one of the two men and another - Monument of Peace. The latter was erected in 2018 to honor the 200th anniversary of the song.

Tomorrow, on Christmas Eve, people from all over the world will honor the song's creators by singing this beautiful carol at the Stille Nacht chapel.

... Silent night, holy night!
Son of God love's pure light.
Radiant beams from Thy holy face
With dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus Lord, at Thy birth
Jesus Lord, at Thy birth ...

Here at home, a small memento of our visit - a tiny wooden ornament of the Nativity - hangs on our Christmas tree. While this Christmas season may be a touch more muted than some, the ornament makes me smile as I think about the song and the great visit with good friends.

Top (l-r): 1890 photo of St. Nikolaus church; chapel looking west; Stille Nacht Einkehr (chapel behind restaurant just to left of the tree; sculpture of Mohr (above) and Gruber; the village was also the birthplace of Leopold Kohr, a famous economist who preferred small and local to big and remote. This almost life-size figure of Kohr inspired Art to say "Hi!" Bottom (l-r): Mohr; Gruber; Gloria, Deb and Lou in front of the chapel; the horn figure identifies the building as a post office. But it is only open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on 8 December through 23 December and 9 a.m. until noon on 24 December. P.O. is just to the south of the chapel; the ornament from Oberndorf. (church photo, Mohr and Gruber images from plaque by chapel)

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